The case of the cynical synthesis


E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉


Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.





4 thoughts on “The case of the cynical synthesis

  1. JJ says:

    Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?

    I’d fall into the “this one” classification if you wish it to be a straight choice between the two.

    I’m interested in the use of the word “pattern” in the above, though, which I can’t help but see as meaning a sort of root cause-and-effect sythesis at a very basc level. We — through reading mysteries — come to understand that the patriarch gathering his family together and telling them his lawyer is coming in the morning for him to sign a new wll leaving everything to the butler will typically result in said patriarch ending up dead when everyone claims to have been elsewhere, but that’s not so much developing a skill in observing patterns as it is in recognising the narrative design behind a larger intent.

    If anything, do these stories not in fact give the illusion of such knowledge or awareness being achieved so that we look not for the pattern that emerges but instead for the false pattern that we’re supposed to believe is the net result of the previous action? The patriarch may have been going to be murdered anyway, but we’re led to believe it’s on account of the will, or that the presence of a recording device has a significance it does not, so that we can be shanghai’d in the final reveal.

    Of course this then gets into the ideas of intertextualiy you’ve already discussed here, with every solution affecting the result of every other GAD novel…because once we’re taught to look in the wrong direction, well, then we’re looking to see that we’re beig mislead and so a new form of “teaching” must be found to keep up looking always the wrong way…

    Hmmm, I’ve a feeling I may have missed the point and veered away from the topic, so I’ll stop here… 🙂

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I agree with you that this has to do with intertextuality, and it gladdens my heart to know that I’m not just a voice in the wilderness on that topic 😉 We are trained by repetition to understand that, in a book, when a wealthy elderly man calls his family together and quarrels with most of them and threatens to leave everything to the butler in the morning, that he will die in Chapter Four at about midnight sure as shootin’ — with each relative trooping in and out of the study at fifteen-minute intervals between nine and eleven. And we have been trained to understand that as mystery-solving readers we look most particularly at the people who did NOT troop in and out of the study, and especially closely at the butler, who seems to lose a windfall, but who may have had a reason to kill the patriarch we haven’t been told about. These widespread understandings are why Christie’s The Hollow is such a brilliant mystery, because, as you suggest, it subverts the well-known pattern and we are shanghaied in the blow-off. I think it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that not only the authors but the readers are self-aware of their roles in this process, and for some reason we still enjoy it.
      Given the general nature of my readership, I wasn’t particularly expecting anyone to choose the option that had to do with finding better things to do than read detective fiction. I just thought I’d leave the option open in case someone from the wrong side of Georgette Heyer’s readers wandered by unknowingly. 😉

      • JJ says:

        There’s a huge aspect in this of what I tend to think of as contained learning. I’m a secondary Maths teacher by profession, and contained learning is what I trade in: that topic or idea or moment that inspires someone to ask “But, uh, when am I actually going to use this in real life?” (which, ha, in Maths is seemingly everything…)

        But, well, a lot of the time I have to admit it’s a valid question: I’ve used Pythagoras’ theorem precisely once in my real life, and have never needed to rely on a Markov chain to resolve a set of probabilities…most of what I teach isn’t direcly applicable to the lives of the people I teach it to. The same is true of GAD reading: yes, we’ll learn a lot about how to consider some action or turn of phrase relevant (you’ll be shocked to learn that I have a post brewing on this exact topic), but that rarely if ever comes into use in our daily lives. What we’re using when we respond as readers to the events in these novels is using the things we have learned in real life, but the context of the book typically takes that learning and applies it in a way that, once learned, we will have no use for outside of such books.

        This, I think is whwre that idea of why readers in particular enjoy the experience, because we’re taught that in this very specific situation this series of events has an outcome that can be justified and measured and found rigorous (mostly…)…but then we find a book where that doesn’t happen, and where the same events lead to a new answer (otherwise, hell, there’d only be about 15 mystery novels ever published — then what would we all be doing with our spare time?!). We’re almost putting on a particular set of clothes when we enter the world of these books, and the best of them go “See that pocket there? Well, I bet you never thought you’d fine this in there, did ya?”.

        Which I think is why many of us — and I definitiely include myself in this — can become so despondent when a mystery novel fails to offer up anything new or of interest; a lot of people are happy simply reading the same ideas applied to the same tropes, but it’s much more fun when you’re “learning” a new way to look at information, even if it’s not book learnin’ in the traditional sense.

  2. Noah Stewart says:

    My brother is also a high school math teacher and is fairly constantly met with the whining observation that we will NEVER use this in the real world, will we? I play bridge, so I use percentages and statistics more than most, but I think for the most part experts in mathematics and/or in the art of detective fiction have to accept that such specialized expertise is rarely useful outside its self-referential milieu.
    I can think of one way in which detective fiction can be useful in everyday life, however. If one is approached by — let’s say a prospective financial advisor, anxious to invest our money for us — a reader of detective fiction will perhaps be more likely to suspect that that person is prepared to commit a crime and therefore require more in the way of references, etc. There’s an old saying in the medical profession that when you hear hoofbeats, you think of horses, not zebras. But one must first be sufficiently sensitized to hear the hoofbeats.

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